So, You Want To Start A Blog?

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It’s September. Fresh, energised and full of optimism, September sees teachers take up new instruments, join exercise classes and start diets – it is the real New Year. So it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when, in the space of 6 days, I received four emails asking for advice about starting a blog.This is incredibly flattering as The Girl On The Piccadilly Line has only existed (at its current domain) for a year so I am no expert (and there are people out there who are experts in this sort of thing.) But, for what it’s worth, here is my advice for anyone, teacher or otherwise, thinking of venturing into the world of blogging.

1. Write about what you know/what you love

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A lot of bloggers will tell you to choose a niche and stick with it; become an expert in that field and you’ll have a ready made readership. That isn’t bad advice but I think the most important thing is that you write about what you know. For me that was education and politics but it doesn’t really matter what it is: coffee, insurance, tube stations with step free access or the best places to go for brunch. If you’re passionate about your subject that will come through in your writing. Trying to regularly produce interesting content on a subject you don’t care about is hard work and can be mind-numbingly dull – don’t do it to yourself. And if you write that blog about the best places for brunch send me the link.

2. Read

Any teacher will tell  you that the best writers are the ones who read widely. So read. Read articles, blogs, novels, non-fiction. Find a writer you love and study the way they weave their words together – learn from them. Struggling to put together a catchy opening paragraph or heading? Get reading. Interested in writing list-style posts? Get reading. Want to use your blog to share your short stories? Get reading. At the moment I’m reading a lot of blogs to try and learn the art of writing a decent closing paragraph. My posts tend to end abruptly or just fizzle out. You don’t know how much I wish every post could just end with, “That’s All Folks!”

3. “At the end of the day, the only thing that’s perfect is a blank sheet of paper – untouched with nothing on it. And if you’re questing for perfection then you’ll leave that paper blank.” – Neil Gaiman

I don’t really like the way I write. I often wish my writing sounded more academic; I’ve yet to master the art of being concise as opposed to just wittering on  (At this point it’s worth mentioning I am available for commissions…) When I first started blogging I used to agonise over posts. I would ask beg my husband to read everything I wrote before I published it, “Is it alright?” I’d ask nervously – I just didn’t believe anything I’d written could be any good. (Little tip – find someone in those early days to be your own personal editor/proofreader/cheerleader. You don’t have to marry them though.)

Over the last year I’ve learnt a valuable lesson: writing is to be read. If people want to read your writing then your writing is serving its purpose. I’ve accepted the way I write is readable and in the last few months people have actually started paying me money to write things for them (which I still can’t get my head around)) So I’ve come to the conclusion I can’t be that bad. Please don’t be like me – have confidence and just keep writing.Sure, you’re first few posts may only be read by your parents but that’s OK!

4. Use social media – not just to share your work.

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I love social media – it’s the fastest way to get your blog out there but it has other uses too. Use it to find other bloggers, join in with blog chats and interact directly with your readers. You get out what you put into the blogging community so get involved. Spend at least an hour a week reading other blogs, commenting on and sharing the things you really like. Invite guest bloggers to write for you – they’ll bring with them new readers.

Use hashtags to increase the visibility of your posts. There are dozens you can use – I tend to rely on:

#MondayBlogs

#WWWBlogs

#WeekendBlogHop

#SundayBlogShare

5. Enjoy it

The best thing about blogging is that there are no hard and fast rules about what it’s meant to look like. You can post once a month or every day. You can publish poems, lists, diaries, songs, photos, videos. The whole point is that you’re carving out your own corner of the internet. It can be whatever you want it to be (within legal limits.) If you find you’re not enjoying it take a break – don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

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That’s all folks!

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: What Is Education About?

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One of the best things about blogging is hearing from people who’ve read my blog and want to contribute their ideas and offer their opinion on something I’ve written. I’ve had emails from people from all over the world, teachers, lecturers, students and sometimes just other bloggers that have read something that’s struck a chord.

A couple of weeks ago I had the most charming email from a man called Geoff Marshall. He had read “What Did You Learn At Primary School?” and wanted to get in touch. It turns out that Geoff had been pointed in the direction of the article by my Primary school head teacher, who had worked with Geoff in the 70s. Geoff is 87 years old and retired from teaching in 1989 – something of an Education veteran.  He knows his stuff and has written an article that sums up the state Education system perfectly. He kindly agreed to let me share the article here. You can find it in it’s original form on his website. Just to recap: this is an article written by the man who hired my Primary school head teacher. This is why I love the internet.

What is Education about?

I’m desperately concerned for our children, both now and in the future. Few question what is happening in our schools. The establishment seem to be agreed that, minor quibbles aside, all would be well if only the state sector could be like the private. 

 
But within my lifetime many of our primary schools were the best in the world and visitors came from across the world. Innovation and initiative were welcomed and expected and Education was an instinctive discipline, the foundation of our thinking. Each school built its own identity upon who was there and where they were. People and place were what made them.
 
Children are expert learners. They have to be and they show it from birth. It’s what they do, with parents and teachers to help them. Schools should be where learning is enjoyed and celebrated for children to ‘grow in abundance,’ as Christian Schiller memorably put it.
 
Learning is a process which requires skills, just like any other process, skills which are improved with practise, founded upon choosing. Making wise choices is the most difficult of skills as we all know and it is fundamental to learning. Adults, knowing something of the available options, are there to help children choose but always within their capacity to choose.
 
Children’s learning begins by observing and contemplating first hand, concrete experience. With all the immediate reactions upon meeting something new there will eventually come one along the lines of ‘So what shall I do about it?  How shall I respond?’ This is the beginning of choosing. It is the task of the adult to follow the child, ready to talk through the possibilities. Being alongside, reading the child, then becomes a prime skill of the teacher.
 
I know this is a simplistic description of learning and of being a teacher but it is sufficient to set it apart from today’s model of good practise. The teacher I have described is a world away from the super being, master of a problem class of youngsters, awed by his ability to impose and to instil the required information. The Secretary of State now promises a hit squad of ‘excellent teachers’ to show failing schools how to do it.  But clearly, instilling information is not practising learning. One is absorbed in helping a child to grow, the other is remembering information.
 
I remember teaching a class of children who could be ‘difficult’: you needed to control to survive. Teachers still need to do that because in most schools children would rather be somewhere else only they know they will need a job when they leave and passing exams will help.
 
Teachers should not be blamed for what they have helped to create in schools today though many are happy enough to see themselves as the one who tells you what to know and how to pass exams. They are after all servants of the state employed to do that. They have become a function of targets, inputs and outcomes reducing the magic of learning to a set of instructions and measurements. There is no place here for intuition, for choosing an alternative medium or discipline, or for simply doing something else. Their masters see no need to meet and learn about children, how they grow and think: they are immersed in sheaves of paper, sending them across the land to ensure all children everywhere perform to a standard in the way the Minister wishes.

 

 

What is it the Minister wishes? Looking back over the years you might think it difficult to know, but overall the message is the same. The Minister wants what is best for the politician; Education is a means to an end which is whatever the Cabinet decides it is. So it could be sex education, numeracy, racism, literacy, social mobility or whatever else is in the headlines of the moment. Teachers have to ensure that children know all about these because society requires it. Above all though, the nation wants young people fit for work, flexible to the needs of the employers’ market.

 

Education is no longer an unconditional ‘good’ like Health. I can speak of a time when my purpose was all about the rounded growth of the person, me with the doctor, the healthy mind and the healthy body. They go together in the makings of a person. Thank goodness the doctors’ oath protects us. Their only concern is our health, not what it’s for. Education is too wide in its references to be described as being ‘for’ anything, rather it is an elemental aspect of life. Would anyone suggest that living is ‘for’ something? Education is a process promoting a full life, one that makes the most of the experiences it offers. Inflating ‘training for a job’ to being its main purpose has been the triumph of capitalism these last fifty years

Parents know that their children are unhappy at school. It is not a place where they can follow their interests, especially when that might disrupt the routine of the day. Parents remember their school days where they learnt that school is to be endured for the sake of the future. So they feel guilty yet remain zealous supporters of what happens. Why is that? It’s because they know that the tests and the targets are all a means to an end which is otherwise unobtainable, so the children must manage as best they can.  Many parents translate their responsibilities into an almost hysterical determination to grab a place in a ‘good’ school which makes no bones about its purpose being to give a ticket to the next stage on the treadmill. So finding a ‘good’ school is as easy and simplistic as reading the football scores and is done with the same intention. What’s top and how to get in?

It ought to be a monstrous crime to seize a young child barely out of babyhood and deliberately proceed to process it in a calculated programme preparing for an unpredictable future which can be of no interest to a young mind which by nature is only interested in the here and now. There can be no more effective way to confuse the mind of a child than to make it perform to a purpose which it doesn’t understand. But when there is a real need perceived and designed by children, they will achieve the most astonishing results, the envy of adults and such as only they can create.

What would happen if we went with children instead of against them, if we followed them, studied them, and helped them to become what they have the abilities to become? Children are devoted to learning. It’s what they do. We should be reading their needs, showing choices and helping them to respond to the concrete first hand experiences they meet. What would happen if children were given the fundamental right of a civilised life and encouraged to grow by developing their ability to make appropriate choices within their capacity to choose? What would it be like if progress were measured by the growing sophistication of the choices made? Just suppose teachers became trusted professionals, expected to decide what has been achieved and what next should happen. What if knowledge became a product of the process of learning rather than the first requirement?
Then as they matured children would begin to understand that their work leads naturally into subject disciplines each of which is of course embedded and was extracted from a concrete experience. They may well become a specialist but still their work will depend upon making wise choices, which of course is the foundation of democracy. How long must we wait before this is allowed to happen? 
Geoffrey Marshall, November 2015

 

For The Love Of Gilbert

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From terrorism to the steady decline of the education system, it’s an understatement to say that my posts have been rather gloomy of late. There’s plenty to be blogging about in Politics at the moment – should we bomb Syria? Probably not. Should we leave the EU? Probably not. Is the Chilcot Report ever going to be released? Probably. However it’s been an exhausting month and I  quite fancy writing something a bit lighter, a bit more hopeful. So I’ve made the decision to add a monthly travel post to the site. Like most people with a pulse, I love to travel and visit new places. To date my adventures have taken me to 4 different continents, 16 countries and countless Cathedral cities. My experiences range from typically tourist (hot dogs in New York, neon paint and fishbowls in Ko Pang Yang) to the more unusual (travelling from London to Malta by train and boat, eating fried crickets etc…)

For the first travel post I decided to write about the only time I’ve travelled alone – my summer in Italy. If you want a blow-by-blow account of this trip including detailed itinerary, restaurant recommendations and the story about the boy who decided to bring home a girl to our dorm for some romancing you can find that here. Instead this post is more a tribute to the inspiration for that trip – Elizabeth Gilbert.

Without being too dramatic, I have Gilbert to thank for the Summer That Changed My Life and believe me, I know how trite that sounds. It’s the sort of tagline you might find on a bargain bin novel or teen movie. But (again, without being overdramatic) nothing has been the same since Italy(another tagline.) In the two years following that trip I’ve changed jobs (twice), moved house, got engaged and adopted a cat called Bubbles. All off the back of that one decision and here is the passage that started it all:

“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”

– “Eat. Pray. Love.” Elizabeth Gilbert

I look back on that Summer now as the perfect balance of complete freedom and independence without feeling lonely or isolated. Every day started with “well – what do you want to see today.” Sometimes the answer was “I want to see the Trevi Fountain.” and sometimes it was “I want to read in that garden next to the gelateria.”  I was the director and star of my own little film and, like all good films, well-known faces popped up throughout. (It turns out if you announce that you’re going to Italy for the summer, many of your close friends will happily join you.)

I ventured through Venice alone tying myself in knots getting lost and summoning the courage to try out the small amount of Italian I’d learnt. I drank local wine on a farm in Tuscany with my oldest friends, I swam and sailed through Lake Como with some of the best travel companions a girl could ask for and, when I finally  reached the glorious city of Rome, I had a very special guest in the shape of my friend, The Man On The Piccadilly Line. That summer is a montage of happy memories with some of my best people and yet some of my happiest times were warm evenings sat alone with a glass of wine and a book, awaiting my spaghetti alla puttanesca .

Before booking the trip I’d toyed with visiting one of Gilbert’s other destinations, India or Indonesia but the food swung it in favour of Italy. A country that encourages you to eat pizza, spaghetti, gelato and coffee every day is the sort of place I want to be. My trip was less “Eat, Pray, Love” and more “Eat, Eat, Eat” but despite 5 weeks of a diet based entirely on pasta and gelato I returned to the UK 8lbs lighter – god bless you Italy.

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The most striking thing about Italian food is how simple it is. Most of the meals I ate were made from 4 or 5 really fresh ingredients. I am grateful for this as it means on cold,  winter evenings, 1000 miles from Rome, it’s possible to recreate some of those beautiful meals. Puttanessca, as well as being of my favourites, is as simple to make as it is delicious. I will leave you with this recipe from Naples:

Spaghetti Puttanessca

750g Pounds Canned Pureed Tomatoes
2 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
200g large Black Olives
3 Anchovies
4 Tablespoons Capers
Salt & Pepper
1/2 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
400g Dried Spaghetti

OPTIONAL EXTRA: Balsamic Vinegar (because my family believe most meals can be enhanced by balsamic vinegar)

Heat the oil in a medium sauce pan and add the garlic, and cook briefly.
Pit the olives and cut into halves
Discard the bones from the anchovies and thinly slice
Add the tomatoes to the oil and garlic, and then the olives, anchovies and capers. At this point you may wish to add a glug of the Balsamic but y’know – no pressure.
Season with salt & pepper and red pepper flakes.
Cook for 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Use to top spaghetti pasta cooked “al dente“.

Buon Appetito.

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10 Things You Will Probably Do Within The First 6 Months Of Starting Your Blog

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Along with fireworks, dark evenings and the first hints of Christmas, November brings my 29th birthday and the 6 month anniversary of The Girl on the Piccadilly Line. Prior to this blog my previous blogging experience had consisted of 6 posts during a summer in Italy. I am really enjoying blogging and have learnt an awful lot over the last six months. If you’re feeling in anyway inspired to blog yourself read on: here are 10 things you will probably do within the first 6 months of starting your blog.

1. You will Google: “How To Earn Money Blogging” every day. 

blogShortly after publishing your first post you’ll start spending a lot of your time imagining a life where your day consists of sitting in cafes tapping away at your laptop, researching your next post and sipping endless flat whites. You’ll contemplate selling space on your blog to generate advertising revenue but decide against it as you “don’t want to dampen the experience for your readers” (even if, at this point, your only readers are your Mum and Dad and your Mum’s friend Linda.) You imagine that somehow Lonely Planet, The Guardian or Cosmopolitan are going to have spotted the “potential” of your first 400 word post, that has been seen by 4 people, and email you offering you a 5 year contract to continue your blog. It wasn’t just me that did this right?

2. You’ll tweak. Obsessively.

The Girl On The Piccadilly Line went from grey, boxy and “grown up” to pink with a hand drawn London skyline in just 2 hours. I think I’ve given less thought to some of the flats I’ve rented than I gave to choosing my theme. Even once you’ve got your blog set up the way you want you’ll play around and change bits. You’ll scroll through other blogs and envy their theme, layout and font. Yes, you become jealous of fonts. You decide that your own blog looks clunky and amateurish by comparison. So you tweak and tweak and tweak…

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3. You’ll wish you knew more about coding

For those bloggers that can code – good work. My previous coding experience ends at programming a times tables game whilst teaching a class and that was with incredibly clear step-by-step instructions written so a 7 year-old could follow them. There are so many things I would like to change about my site but, at present, I don’t have the skills to do so. So in those first few months you’ll scour WordPress forums and sometimes cry in frustration at not knowing your CSS from your HTML or your Front End from your Back End.  That said, when you finally manage to customize even the most basic of features on your site, albeit with the help of a very patient 19-year-old computer science undergrad you found on Twitter, you’ll feel pretty damn pleased with yourself.

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4. You’ll hit refresh – and  then hit refresh again.

Page hits aren’t actually the most useful statistic but in the early days of a new blog there is something quite exhilarating about watching that number increase. If you’re anything like me you’ll start imaging who the new readers are “Oh another 2 hits – that’s probably the Obamas. They can’t get enough of my blog.” I think I actually whooped with joy with Girl On The Piccadilly Line reached a mere 3,000 hits (before moving domains and starting again at 0. Grr.)

5. You’ll lust after desks.

I’m desperate for a desk to work at. You know, with flowers, pictures plenty of light and colourful pens. At the moment I write all my posts from either the sofa or our kitchen/office (every home has a kitchen/office right?)  It’s handy being so close to the kettle but my aim is to have a more peaceful desk space some day in the future.

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6. You’ll become a social media expert (whore)

I use social media like a 16 year old. I’ve dusted off my Pinterest, got myself a Bloglovin account and created a Girl On The Piccadilly Line Facebook page. I’ve spent more time analysing stats for these accounts than is probably healthy and have worked out the best time to publish a new post for maximum exposure. Social media is excellent for finding like-minded bloggers and building a network of support and advice. Use it to your advantage. I follow #MondayBlogs, #BloggingGals and #SundayBlogShare avidly and use them to find new blogs to follow.

7. You’ll be hit by huge amounts of self-doubt

Writing is personal and blogging even more so; you are putting a little piece of yourself out there for others to judge. Of course if you really don’t want negative feedback you shouldn’t put yourself out there at all but then if you thought like that you’d never really do anything. I remember sitting on a train with The Man On The Piccadilly Line, who’d been watching in bemusement as I scrawled in my notebook like a maniac, I looked up and it said, “What am I doing?! Nobody is interested in this – only me! This is too niche; why am I writing this?”

“Just keep writing,” he replied, “There’ll be other people who will find it interesting and you’re enjoying it so don’t worry.” (The Man on the Piccadilly Line is very wise and very kind, you see.) I used to get embarrassed even showing him my writing but now I show him all my posts before publishing them and he proof reads and advises. He’s always positive and encouraging but also offers advice on how I could improve parts of my writing. Find a friend that can do this for you. Then marry that friend.

8. You promote other people’s blogs

I now follow dozens of blogs, comment regularly on them and tweet with the bloggers. You get out what you put in and self promotion is only going to get you so far – you need to work with other people. Also, they’re a really friendly bunch out there in the Bloggersphere so don’t be afraid to say hello! Everyone you interact with will be able to offer you some advice or teach you a new skill (or in my case explain in the MOST basic terms where I had to paste the code to create a side bar.) Get involved, share other people’s work and do so without the expectation that the favour will be returned (although it often will be.)

9. You’ll store blog ideas on your phone

Because they’ll strike you when you’re at work, out with friends or in the pub (be careful of those ideas though – 3 glasses of Rioja and I will become convinced the world needs a post about all the pets I’ve owned: 9 cats and a dog, since you asked.) Joking aside there will be times when you have genuine “I have to blog about this” lightbulb moments and inspiration nearly always strikes at an occasion when it isn’t socially acceptable to ignore work or social decency and start a new post, so have somewhere handy to write them down.

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10. You’ll learn a lot about when and how you like to work

Blogging regularly takes commitment. I write roughly 5,000 words a month for my blog and that’s mainly at weekends (or particularly inspired evenings.) In the holidays I can write three posts a week rather than three a month. I know I work better in the mornings and that when I have an idea that I really want to write about I’m impatient to get going on it (which is why most of Eat. Read. London was written by hand on the train from Leamington Spa to Euston.) I’ve also confirmed something I’ve always suspected about myself which is, when I am really interested in what I’m doing, I will become slightly obsessive about it. Without meaning to, it I have sat for 4 hours straight without looking up from my screen working on a blog post and stay up into the small hours writing – those that know me, know that I’m normally in bed and asleep by 10pm. So much of my working life is dictated by bells and being in certain places at certain times that it’s been interesting to see how I approach a completely different sort of work on my own schedule.